Best Defense

Morris’ ‘Evil Hours’: The surprise that a traumatic situation can provoke growth

Here’s an excerpt from the book I’ve been hyping all week: — The closest Steve House has come to the other side, the time when death was most imminent, wasn’t the time he climbed K7, a fearsome 22,770-foot peak in Pakistan’s Karakoram Range alone with a pack that weighed just seven pounds, nor the time ...


Here’s an excerpt from the book I’ve been hyping all week:

The closest Steve House has come to the other side, the time when death was most imminent, wasn’t the time he climbed K7, a fearsome 22,770-foot peak in Pakistan’s Karakoram Range alone with a pack that weighed just seven pounds, nor the time he and two other climbers got lost halfway up Denali with no tent, sleeping bags or other overnight gear. Rather it was on the north face of Mount Temple, a minor peak in Canada’s Banff National Park that is regularly climbed by tourists using a popular foot trail. In 2010, House was leading a route up the 11,627-foot mountain when a piece of rock came loose beneath him. “As I fell, I was relaxed at first. A flake had broken, not all that unexpected considering the incredibly bad rock quality on Mount Temple. Then the [protective] gear started pinging out of the partially decomposed limestone. One…two…three…four…the fifth piece, a large cam in a solid, but flaring, pocket of rock almost held me. But it too ripped as the rope started to slow my descent. The sudden jolting free-fall flipped me upside down and I crashed my right side into something hard, something painful, and was spun around again when I finally came to a stop half-sideways eighty feet lower than where I’d started.”

As House later explained, “I was on a sloping snow ledge with Bruce [his partner, Bruce Miller] just twenty-five feet to my right. What probably held me was a groove in a snow-mushroom that I’d stamped out with a boot.”

One of the world’s premier alpinists, House knew better than most that the mountains possess a unique ability to foil even the best-laid plans, transforming the most casual outing into a catalogue of horrors, but to die like this would be absurd. Assessing the situation, he quickly discovered that he’d broken several ribs, his pelvis and was having trouble breathing. Between clenched breaths, he called over to Miller and told him to get out his cell phone and see if he could call 911. Deep down, House knew that he was in trouble. He figured that a rescue helicopter could probably get close to where he was but the clock was ticking. “My chest hurt like hell and I knew I didn’t have all day. I couldn’t really move, so if the pilot came in and wasn’t able to get to me, I knew that I was going to die.”

… Trapped on the flank of Mount Temple and in great pain, House began to take stock of his situation. He could tell he’d broken some ribs. Breathing was difficult. It was all he could do to take “tiny, shallow baby breaths.” He couldn’t move. After yelling at Miller to call 911, House spent the next ten minutes trying to crawl toward him. Eventually he was able to reach his partner but not before his right lung collapsed. Fortunately, help was on the way: a helicopter was being dispatched from nearby Canmore though it would be awhile before the rescue wardens who were located in the town of Banff were assembled and loaded on to the aircraft. As he explained to me years later, “The most traumatic thing, the thing I think about the most is laying there, waiting on that ledge for the helicopter.”

As W.H.R. Rivers noted shortly after World War I, immobility, powerlessness in the face of death, is often what most vexes the psyche. House was on the ledge for a long time. Looking back on it, he recalls the hours trapped on that tiny shelf of snow and ice as a time of life-altering insight. Mulling the prospect of his own demise, he began to take stock of his life, noting patterns that had seemingly been invisible before, hidden by the daily rush of events.

For most of his adult life, he had lived by the simplest of codes: to climb the greatest mountains in the world with as little baggage as possible, stripping everything away until only the absolute essentials remained—the climber, the mountain and a few pieces of gear. It was an ethos, he saw, that had come to dominate his personal life as well, a simple unwillingness to allow either his own feelings or other “flatland” concerns get in the way of the summit. In his zeal to climb, to explore the radical topography of the heights, to take part in what British mountaineer George Mallory called the “struggle of life itself upward and forever upward,” he had neglected the life below. “On the ledge, when I thought back on my life and all the climbing I’d done, I felt really good about that. I hadn’t done everything I wanted to, certainly, but I realized that I had done a lot and I was pretty happy about that. But there were other parts of my life where I saw that I hadn’t done everything I wanted to. I realized that the relationship I was in was not what I wanted. I knew it wasn’t healthy. And I thought about my sister and my family and I realized that I never really felt like I had been part of a family since I left home to go to college. So I was like, yeah, I want to have that, I want to be a part of nurturing a family of my own and seeing it through.”

On the ledge, House began thinking about his climbing career as well. “After Nanga Parbat, part of me was just done. And it’s hard because climbing as a sport doesn’t really have a way to retire. It doesn’t have that model. It’s not competitive like cycling or other sports, so most climbers as they get older, don’t really retire, they just climb until they can’t walk anymore and that’s partly what’s beautiful about it but I realized that I had been banging my head against the wall trying to recapture the feeling I had gotten from Nanga and no climb was going to give me that.”

Finally, after two hours on the side of the mountain, the rescue helicopter arrived. After a quick survey of the scene, the helicopter drew closer and lowered a rescue warden. Dangling at the end of a line was a mountaineer House had climbed with a few years before. “Hey Steve, it’s Steve Holeczi, everything’s gonna be okay,” he said.

This is excerpted, with permission, from David Morris’ marvelous new book, The Evil Hours, just published.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1

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